Post-election books can offer riveting accounts of what happened, why, and what it all means—think of Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960; Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page's An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968; Jules Witcover's Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976; and, most recently, James W. Ceaser, Andrew E. Busch, and John J. Pitney, Jr.'s Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics.
Post-reelection books have a harder row to hoe. The protagonist is familiar. The antagonist—that is, the challenger—is seldom a compelling figure. Historically speaking, he's much less likely to be a Ronald Reagan or a Franklin D. Roosevelt than a George McGovern, Bob Dole, Walter Mondale, John Kerry, or, alas, Mitt Romney. The president's honeymoon, with all its attendant hope and anticipation about what lies ahead, is four years in the rearview. A reelection reaffirms the marriage vows, but it's not a wedding.
The natural response of the authors and publishers of post-reelection books is to pump up the volume. This is especially true of trade books, which have to sell a lot more copies than those published by academic presses in order to be profitable. In this light it's not surprising that the Washington Post's main political reporter, Dan Balz, opens Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America, by claiming that 2012 was "just as compelling" as 2008, "a sprawling story" that opened a "window into the struggle between where America has been and where it may be going." In The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, Bloomberg News columnist Jonathan Alter calls and raises Balz's claim. Of all recent elections, he argues, 2012 "may have been the most consequential, a hinge of history."
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Don't get me wrong. The two teams of scholars who wrote 2012 books—Ceaser (a professor at the University of Virginia), Busch, and Pitney (both of Claremont McKenna College), the authors of After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics; and John Sides of George Washington University and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA, who wrote The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election—don't pooh-pooh the importance of the election. But neither do they purport to outdo Homer and Dante in their choice of subjects. Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney conclude that Barack Obama's reelection meant "the health care law and the large increase in federal spending since 2008 would probably be locked into place." But they also note that he is the first president in nearly a century to be reelected more narrowly than he was elected and to lose so many congressional seats for his party between his two victories. Sides and Vavreck, who released chapters electronically during the campaign, seem to find the true significance of the election in the existence of their book, which they describe as "a scientific book about the election [written] in real time."
To say that 2012 was less important than 2008 is not to say that it was insignificant. Half of Obama's six most recent predecessors in the presidency—Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George Bush in 1992—were defeated at the polls. But Obama, like Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996, and George W. Bush in 2004, enjoyed an enormous electoral advantage that the three defeated presidents did not: a united political party. Ford had to fend off a serious challenge from former governor Reagan of California. Carter had to battle for renomination against an equally impressive Democratic challenger, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Bush's opponent was much less formidable but no less distracting: political commentator and former White House aide Patrick Buchanan. In every case these presidents were renominated for a second term, but only after being attacked for months by their intraparty rivals, thereby diverting time, talent, and money from preparing for the general election campaign.
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Presidents who have to battle for renomination forfeit much of the electoral advantage of being president because they receive the same kind of hammering that those seeking the other party's nomination encounter. To be sure, in 2012 much of the battering Romney received in winning the GOP nomination was his own fault. No one could be sure what he really believed because, after an enormously successful career in business, what he really believed was that you succeed by giving the customer what he wants. Liberal Massachusetts, which elected him governor in 2002, wanted permissive abortion laws and mandatory health insurance, and he gave them both. So proud was Romney of the health bill that he insisted that a copy be included in his official state portrait. The Republican presidential primary electorate wanted a nominee who was conservative across the board and so, there came Romney, shooting down Texas governor Rick Perry from the right on immigration (his "single worst decision," according to the Wall Street Journal) and refusing to accept a hypothetical deficit reduction plan that included $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts.
Romney also had a blind spot about what Alter calls his "Richie Rich" image. Offhand references to his wife Ann's "couple of" Cadillacs, to the joys of "fir[ing] people who provide services to me," and to being "also unemployed" were bad enough. The Atlantic's James Fallows observed that when Romney offered to bet Perry $10,000 that he had mischaracterized his Massachusetts health plan, he chose exactly the wrong figure. A regular guy might offer to bet a dollar or, with familiar hyperbole, a million bucks. But $10,000 was the kind of wager a rich man might dare someone who couldn't afford it to make. Still worse, with knowledge aforethought that he would have to release at least two years of tax returns, how could Romney have held onto his offshore bank accounts, deducted $77,000 for Ann's dressage horse, built a $12 million vacation home with an elevator for his cars—and not thought that there would be any blowback? His assertion that "my job is not to worry about these people"—these people being the notorious "47%" who refuse "to take personal responsibility and care for their lives"—didn't become public until September, but he made it in May at a time when he was making those other, equally clueless statements. Again, Romney's choice of numbers was tone-deaf. "If," Alter writes, "Romney had said 10 percent or 20 percent, his lazy moochers argument might have worked"—by leaving out retirees and soldiers, for starters.
As Gabriel Schoenfeld, a Romney campaign adviser now at the Hudson Institute, argues in his e-book, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider's Account, Romney and his staff also severely neglected global affairs during the campaign. Yes, foreign policy was a minor issue on voters' minds in 2012; only 5% in the national exit poll said they based their vote on it. But being presidential—that is, being trusted to protect American interests in a dangerous world—is always on voters' minds. Romney's inattention-based flubs concerning the terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi not only blew an opportunity to nail Obama to the wall, but also handed the president his best moment in the fall debates (Obama: "Can you say that a little louder, Candy?" Debate moderator Crowley: "He did call it an act of terror.")
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For at least four reasons, however, Romney was bruised politically to an unusually high degree in the nominating contest because of circumstances beyond his control that were particular to 2012. The first was the brutal regimen of primary debates, many of them with new pro-wrestling-style formats designed to pump up cable news ratings. Over the course of 20 debates, Romney's rivals relentlessly attacked him in an effort to bring down the frontrunner. In order to beat them back, the governor clumsily branded himself as "severely conservative" (a term liberals would be more likely to use about conservatives than conservatives about themselves) and urged illegal Latino immigrants to embrace "self-deportation." Meanwhile, his opponents' charges followed a script that the Obama campaign happily borrowed. For example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Romney of having "looted" companies during his business career and branded him a "vulture capitalist." Perry said that Romney and Bain Capital, the firm he founded, would "pick the carcass clean and then fly away."
Second, as Sides and Vareck note, new GOP rules "elongated the primary calendar, moving Super Tuesday about a month later." In 2008, 70% of convention delegates were chosen by March 2. In 2012, it took until May 8 to reach that milestone. Romney's nomination-seeking agonies were also prolonged by a third new factor: the Supreme Court's open door in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010) to unlimited individual donations to independent groups supporting a candidate. In the past, poorly funded contenders like Gingrich and former senator Rick Santorum would have had to drop out after an early series of losses. Now a deep-pocketed donor (Foster Friess for Santorum and, to the tune of $16.5 million, Sheldon Adelson for Gingrich) could keep their favorite candidate's campaign alive with multimillion dollar expenditures. "One thing was certain, therefore," argue Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney: "a lot of television viewers would hear a lot of bad things about Republican candidates."
Finally, the Republicans scheduled their convention in late August, later than any opposition party gathering in history. The reason lateness mattered was that although Romney raised a lot of money for the general election after wrapping up the nomination in mid-April, by law he couldn't spend any of it until he was formally nominated by the Republican convention. For four months, Romney's air defenses were crippled while Obama bombed away. From May to August, Balz reports, Obama ran 247,183 ads to Romney's 90,500, including a cruelly effective spot that showed Romney singing "America the Beautiful" off-key behind a crawl charging that he had shipped jobs to Mexico, outsourced work to India, and parked money in tax havens in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
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Both After Hope and Change and The Gamble show that the trial heat polls did not move much during this period. But what the former volume realizes that the latter doesn't is that Romney was denied a great opportunity to move ahead: "this was the time, after a divisive primary fight, that [voter sentiment] should have been moving in Romney's favor." Obama's attack ads also meant that Romney had to use the Republican convention to show that he didn't have horns, instead of carrying the attack to the president and focusing the nation's attention on what the Republican proposed to do if he were elected.
In contrast to Romney, Obama coasted to renomination. To be sure, he had critics within the Democratic Party, most of them liberals who—in Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney's phrase—"quietly seethed at his ineffectiveness." Liberal Democrats thought that Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan in 2009 had been too modest, hated that his health care reform bill relied on private insurance and pharmaceutical companies, believed that he was too pliable on matters of taxing and spending in the face of congressional Republican opposition, and blamed him for his party's massive defeat in the 2010 congressional elections-the greatest any party had suffered since 1948.
Bill Clinton had been similarly unpopular among Democratic liberals in 1996 after overseeing the loss of both congressional chambers to the GOP in 1994. Taking a page from Clinton's pre-election year playbook, Obama raised so much money in 2011, averaging a fundraising event every five days, that he scared off any potential Democratic challengers. By the time the first caucus votes were cast in Iowa on January 3, 2012, Obama already had spent tens of millions of dollars building the infrastructure for his campaign and still had about $60 million on hand. Balz and, especially, Alter offer masterly accounts of how the Obama campaign used all that time and money to build an unprecedentedly sophisticated and effective organization. Sides and Vavreck are snarky about election books by journalists, but sometimes shoe-leather reporting is the only way to find out what's going on behind the scenes. The Romney campaign sure didn't know. "Republicans could see that the Obama campaign was spending tens of millions of dollars in 2011," writes Balz. "They weren't sure on what."
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What Obama's campaign brains trust realized was that, although they had run the most technologically sophisticated campaign in history in 2008, they still had a long way to go in 2012. Facebook, for example, had expanded tenfold in four years to encompass more than half the country's population, and Twitter, which only came into being in March 2006, was growing geometrically. The main thing Jim Messina and his Chicago colleagues did was use new digital technologies in the service of old-school door-to-door canvassing. Facebook friends and other online sources would tell the campaign which likely Obama supporters in the ten battleground states needed a little push to register or vote, and the campaign would send volunteers from one of its hundreds of local offices to pay a housecall. The software that animated the campaign's digital operation, much of it developed in a windowless headquarters room dubbed "the Cave," was produced by a young staff who, Alter reports, "would account for more than one-third of the Obama campaign's payroll—a huge bet" that obviously paid off. Alas for movie-lovers hoping for a new political documentary, Obama's geeky cave-dwellers were much less screenworthy than James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who inhabited Clinton's 1992 "War Room."
Narrow as it was, Obama's victory was clear enough that nearly everybody got to go to bed earlier than planned on election night. Although many Republicans were quick to criticize Romney for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Sides and Vavreck argue from statistics that, based on elections since 1948, the sort of slow but steady economic growth that marked Obama's first term is usually enough to reelect a president, especially when independent voters like him personally and blame his predecessor for their woes, which was true in 2012. Given these fundamentals, they say, the campaign between Obama and Romney was like an evenly matched tug-of-war in which both sides make an enormous effort but "the flag in the middle of the rope remains stationary." It's a nice argument, and in early 2012 Sides and Vavreck's statistical model of the election was one of nine that predicted an Obama victory based on conditions at the beginning of the election year. But five such models with roughly equal statistical rigor predicted a Romney victory. Like financial analysts enjoying a hot streak, Sides and Vavreck are justly proud of their prediction in 2012, but was it the equivalent of breaking the Enigma code—or of a good day at the track? It's not difficult to imagine a better Romney campaign, a saner nominating process, or a divisive Democratic primary that would have changed the results of the election.
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Post-election commentators paid particular attention to the exit poll results, which showed that Obama did especially well among those sectors of the electorate that are growing most rapidly. White voters, whom Romney carried with 59% (a greater majority than John McCain got in 2008 or George W. Bush won in 2004), comprised all but 12% of the electorate as recently as 1980. By 2012, 28% of the voters were nonwhite, with demographers projecting that their share of the electorate will continue to grow at a rate of about 2 percentage points per presidential election. While his percentage of the national popular vote declined from 53% in 2008 to 51% in 2012, Obama actually gained 4 points among Latinos and 11 points among Asian Americans. As in 2008 blacks turned out at a higher rate than whites and once again gave more than 90% of their votes to Obama.
Similarly, although Romney did well among seniors, Obama prevailed among younger voters, who have a much longer shelf life. Unmarried voters, another expanding constituency, favored Obama by nearly two-to-one and voters who marked "none" when asked about their religious affiliation—yet another growing sector of the electorate—supported him by almost three-to-one. Finally, Obama bested Romney among the substantial and increasing number of people claiming postgraduate degrees. Support from these "situational" (as opposed to demographic) groups is in part an artifact of what Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney accurately describe as the Left's "stranglehold on higher education, popular culture, and mass media." In contrast to previous recession-era presidents, for example, Obama "did not face a torrent of critical news stories about homelessness, black youth unemployment, or other social conditions" during his first term.
Democrats took heart from these numbers. Ten years before the election, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002), which identified the population trends that came to fruition in 2012 so advantageously for Obama. Surely, Democratic readers of the book rejoiced, an even better educated, more multiracial electorate that includes fewer married churchgoers will render the Democrats still more successful in years to come against the shrinking GOP coalition of older, white, married Christians. A few days after the 2012 results were in, Judis crowed in the New Republic that "Obama's reelection is evidence of a Democratic realignment that dates back almost two decades."
But as Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney point out, "it is hard to imagine other Democrats who would have the same appeal among minorities as Barack Obama." The GOP doesn't need to carry these groups; relatively small inroads would make a big difference, especially if the party chooses a nominee who does not depress white working-class turnout, as Romney apparently did. Seniors may not last forever, but at present they are, Balz points out, "the fastest growing segment of the population by age."
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Also little remarked in the post-election commentary was that since Democrats began dominating presidential elections in 1992 the House of Representatives, after 60 years in a nearly unbroken Democratic stranglehold, has been Republican for 16 of 22 years and the Senate has been Democratic for just 12 of those years, little more than half the time. State governments, most of which Democrats controlled before Clinton ushered in the era of Democratic presidential dominance, have generally swung to the GOP. Republican governors outnumber Democrats by 30 to 20 and Republicans still control both houses of the legislature in 27 states, the same as before the election. Alter buys the Democrats' argument that "the explanation" for the Republicans' success in the House "was gerrymandering" by GOP state legislatures. Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney point out that the Democrats' real problem is that they tend to live in densely-packed cities, "where landslide margins for Democratic House candidates result in many ‘wasted' votes." In any event, divided government—which was long the exception in American politics—is now the rule. From 1900 to 1968, the presidency, House, and Senate were all in the same party's hands 80% of the time. Since then, united party government has prevailed only 26% of the time.
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Some wave a different caution flag at those who think the country is becoming relentlessly Democratic. Historically, every new lasting partisan majority has been ushered in by a president who not only was reelected but was succeeded in the next election by a president of his own party. Thomas Jefferson was followed by James Madison, Andrew Jackson by Martin Van Buren, Abraham Lincoln by Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley by Theodore Roosevelt, FDR by Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan by George Bush. In sum, the path to a new and lasting partisan majority leads through the founding president's second term to his successor's election.
Obama has secured that term and, if it is successful, the Democrats' chances of becoming the nation's majority party for years to come will be enhanced. The problem is that a president's second term almost invariably turns out to be less successful than his first. Obama's is off to the same poor start that most of his predecessors experienced, and for much the same reasons.
Many of the seeds of second-term disappointment are planted during the campaign—for reasons that made perfect political sense at the time. Reelection-seeking presidents invariably order from a strategic menu with only two entrees: "Wasn't my first term great?" (the preferred choice of popular presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan) and, if that option isn't available (as it wasn't for Obama), "The other guy is worse." What almost never appears on the menu is: "Here's my second-term agenda." Ideas for change are intrinsically controversial in ways that a referendum on a successful first term, or on a scary-seeming opponent, is not.
At times during the campaign, Obama's aides told reporters that he had a second-term policy agenda that included tackling issues such as climate change and immigration reform. But the president's only substantive discussion of his new agenda was almost willfully obscure: it came in an off-the-record interview with the Des Moines Register two weeks before the election. The one issue Obama talked about emphatically throughout the campaign was his longstanding desire to increase income taxes on high earners—a carryover from 2008. He reaped the harvest of this rare act of specificity immediately after the election, when Republican leaders in Congress grudgingly conceded that they had lost the political argument and increased taxes on households earning $450,000 or more.
Just days before the election an improbably late hurricane did massive damage to densely populated areas of New Jersey and New York. The president toured the Jersey shore with Republican governor Chris Christie, previously a fierce partisan critic, who on three consecutive days praised Obama on national television for being "outstanding in this." Sides and Vavreck argue that "the polls did not move very much" after Hurricane Sandy, but in the exit poll 15% of voters said that Obama's response to the natural disaster was the most important factor in their decision about how to vote, and 73% of them voted for the president. According to Alter, it wasn't until Sandy that Bill Clinton thought Romney would lose.
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Like running a blister-your-opponent campaign, draping oneself in the flag does nothing to lay the predicate for the second term. Nor do the president's fellow party members in Congress feel much personal obligation to help. Obama seldom shared the stage with Democratic candidates for the House and Senate and, Sides and Vavreck point out, his local and national campaign offices "were devoted almost entirely to the president," not the ticket. Democrats gained back only one eighth of the 63 House seats they lost in 2010 and although they picked up a couple in the Senate, Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney note that Democratic senatorial candidates in competitive races were three times more likely to extend coattails to Obama than the other way around.
The tax increase aside, the main effect of the president's content-lite reelection is that he is in no position to claim even a minor mandate at the start of the second term, which is one of the reasons—just one—that his liberal triumphalist inaugural address sounded so unmoored from political reality. What's more, he can only expect things to get worse. At less than the halfway mark of his second term will come his second midterm congressional election and the fabled "six-year itch," which voters usually scratch by punishing the incumbent's party. Democrats are highly unlikely to win control of the House in 2014. Only four GOP House members currently represent Democratic-leaning districts, compared with 15 vulnerable Democrats. If history is any guide, turnout will drop from 130 million in 2012 to about 80 million, and most of the dropouts will be young and minority voters. No midterm election has ever produced even ten additional House seats for the president's party, much less the 17-seat gain that the Democrats need to secure a majority.
In the 2014 Senate elections, the Democrats will have to defend 21 seats to the Republicans' 14. That is not an insurmountable problem; Democrats thrived in the face of longer odds in 2012. But some of the Democratic senators on the ballot serve in states that have grown dramatically more Republican since the 2008 elections, including Arkansas, Louisiana, and West Virginia. Other Democrats represent states that Romney carried, including North Carolina, Alaska, South Dakota, and Montana. In contrast, the only Republican seat in a state carried by Obama is in Maine, where popular incumbent Susan Collins is a shoe-in.
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A second-term president is a lame-duck from day one but as the end of the second term approaches, the consequences become more tangible and visible. For example, during his final year, the Senate takes an especially jaundiced view of Supreme Court nominations. Historically, the rejection rate for final-year nominees has been 48%, compared with 14% for nominations made earlier in the term. When the opposition party controls the Senate—a possibility Obama may face after 2014—the final-year rejection rate rises to 75%.
As with nearly everything else, Obama didn't make an issue of Supreme Court appointments during his reelection campaign. Consequently, his ability to fill any vacant seats will depend on when the vacancies occur. Conservative justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy will both turn 80 before Obama leaves office. If their health permits, they may decide to remain on the Court in the hope that a Republican president will be the one to replace them. Meanwhile, liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will turn 83 and fellow liberal Stephen Breyer will turn 78. Even if they remain healthy, they may decide to time their retirement to assure that Obama will nominate their successor. But if that is their goal they better do so sooner rather than later. The closer to the 2016 election a vacancy occurs, the more likely that Republicans in the Senate will find a way to prevent any Obama nominee from being confirmed.
Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney have written the best book about the 2012 election but Sides and Vavreck tell the single most illuminating story. On April 9 of the election year, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner interviewed President Obama and, as a gift, presented him with two pairs of socks, one "salmon with pink squares" and one with "black and pink stripes." "These may be second-term socks," Obama replied. The truth is Barack Obama didn't show much ankle of any kind during the campaign. He is now paying the price in governing that he chose not to pay in campaigning. Hillary or no Hillary, the Democrats' hopes of attaining an enduring majority will likely suffer, too.